Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Day 102: Snakes On The Move

Lampasas to eastern Mills County. 21.9 miles/1900 total

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I'm on the side of US 183 about four miles west of Lampasas, going through Lometa, then ten miles past that to somewhere on the side of the road about three miles inside Mills County.

It’s another nearly cloudless day. It’s becoming like a cliché. Temperature in the 60s, heading up into the mid-80s.

Now that I’m truly out in the country again, probably for the first time since arriving in east Texas, there’s no shortage of people offering me rides, waving at me, and generally being friendly. It confirms my belief that such behavior is characteristic of country folks no matter whether they’re in Indiana or the south or here in Texas. They seem to want to be decent on a personal level in spite of their grimly uncharitable political views.

About three miles into the walk I get stopped by two Texas state troopers. They pull off the road in front of me and both get out of the car—you know how they do, cautiously, with their hands on their guns. The driver, the taller of the two, who towers about a foot over me and does most of the talking, says they were just checking to see if I was all right because I looked “out of place,” or something like that. But of course that wouldn’t have required them to get out of the car. Any number of cops have pulled over to check if I was okay, and most barely even come to a complete stop. But these guys are very polite.

Something tells me, with these two cops standing there, that this is the time for full disclosure, so I tell them I'm walking across the country. Naturally this piques their interest somewhat, and the tall one says, quite perceptively, “You’re traveling kind of light to be walking across the country.” I tell him I have a motor home where I stay at night, so I don’t need to carry much with me. The tall one asks me where I'm from and I tell him I'm from Michigan, on my way to California. The other one asks where the motor home is. I tell him it's parked by the side of the road in the next county, about 18 miles away. He nods, as if this somehow computes. I think they might have seen it already. These are state police, so their range, like that of large predatory animals, is apt to be quite vast.

“So how did you get down here? Did you have somebody drop you off?” They are trying to figure it out. And now they're curious, having I think dropped whatever suspicions they might have had that I was dangerous.

“I drove my car. You see, I tow a car behind the motor home, and I use it to go back to the beginning of the walk.”

“Is that your car on the side of the road, back by Lampasas?”

“Yes it is.” They've been all over the place this morning.

The tall one is getting the idea, but still doesn’t have it all figured out. “So how do you do this whole thing?”

“Well, it’s like this. I drive the motor home with the car to the place I’m going to walk to, then I park the motor home, take the car off the dolly, drive it back to the place where I’m going to start walking, park the car, and walk from the car to the motor home. That’s what I’m doing now—walking to the motor home.”

They're nodding now. I am, frankly, impressed. Most peoples’ eyes begin to glaze over at this point.

“Then when I get to the motor home, I’ll drive it back down to the car, put the car on the dolly, and drive down to Lampasas, where I’m spending the night tonight. Then tomorrow I’ll drive the motor home and the car to a point about 21 miles beyond where it is today, and do it all over again.”

At this point a little smile is playing at the edges of the tall one’s mouth. The other one is smirking. I’ve been doing okay, but I’ve just stepped over the line. I know it immediately. The smiles say that while they know I'm not a danger to myself or others, I'm not quite right, either.

It comes down to this. What I do every day I walk, which I’ve done almost a hundred times now (the first few days in September I stayed at home at night and used the car and my bicycle), involves five steps. And most people can only stay with me for three steps. This seems to be the limit of the attention span of the average person, created by operative conditioning by means, I'm pretty sure, of the average interval between commercials on television.

Step one is driving the motor home and the car to point B. Step two is driving the car back to point A. Step three is walking from point A to point B. After that something happens inside peoples’ brains, and instead of picturing the motor home and the car, they begin to see something akin to the antics of one of those guys on the Ed Sullivan Show who’s spinning plates on top of sticks while juggling Indian clubs and balancing on a plank thrown across a large cylinder. Or maybe some elaborate cartoon plot by Wile E. Coyote to get the Roadrunner with a contraption he bought from the Acme Company, complete with slapstick penny whistle music.

The point is, I have lost these guys, just like I lose almost everybody. For the walking itself, there is endless interest and even some respect. For the logistics, there is very little of either.

They both shake their heads, bemused. Then the tall one says, “Why are you doing this, anyway?” It always does come down to that, doesn’t it? I give him the usual mishmash of answers, beginning with “to see if I can do it,” and dribbling on into a recitation of how friendly everyone is.

Now they know they're talking to a harmless crank, and they're eager to get on with whatever more serious work they have ahead of them.

“Just be careful out there and watch the cars,” the tall one says.

“Okay. I stay as far off the road as I can” I say, gesturing to the wide expanse of grass off to the side.

The other one glances at the grass and says, “Watch out down there. The snakes are starting to move.”

But the tall one wants to have the last word. “First watch the cars,” he says, “then watch the snakes.” And they're on their way.

Immediately I make a note to myself to check out the proper first aid procedures for rattlesnake bites. I think they've changed since I was a Boy Scout. The tourniquet and the knife are out, if I remember right. Too bad, because everything in Boy Scouts always seemed to come down to a tourniquet and a knife. You can build a bridge with a tourniquet and a knife.

At ten miles I begin to come into the outskirts of Lometa. I’m welcomed by the Lion’s Club, the Masons, the Eastern Star, the Boy Scouts, the FFA, the FHA, and the Methodists and Baptists.

A fence along the way has some large black things hanging from it. I can’t tell what they are, but when I get closer I see they’re huge catfish heads. Some of them are a foot square, and they’re all dried up and blackened, a dozen of them.

Lometa, population 782, begins about a mile later. Here’s a historical marker, talking about the Scholten Railroad, a 25-mile narrow gauge railway that operated from 1912 to 1925, carrying cedar posts and pilings from around here to West Texas. The Scholten brothers were Dutch, it says. I know that cedar posts were an important part of the construction of barbed wire fences, so that must have been what they were up to.

Lometa was started as a railroad town in 1886, for the Santa Fe Railroad, which still runs through the city, now the BNSF. Originally the town was called Montvale, and I don’t know why it was changed to Lometa, or what that signifies.

Highway 183 widens to five lanes through downtown Lometa, evidently to handle the heavy rush hour traffic in this town of 782. There is also a traffic light, and sidewalks, too. All this is a little on the optimistic side, if you ask me.

At the main intersection there are two or three antique stores and a bank. Next to that is the Shell station and convenience store, where I stop for something to drink. Next door to that is a spiffy drive-through beer store.

I leave Lampasas County and enter Mills County, named for John T. Mills, a pre-Civil War justice of the Texas supreme court, who was born in Ireland. Its county seat is Goldthwaite, through which I’ll be walking tomorrow.

I’m almost to the motor home. I got another eight ride offers today, in addition to my visit with the state troopers. Two of the offers were from military personnel in uniform, one Army and the other Air Force. Both of these guys looked like they were in amazingly good shape, youthful and vigorous, and their demeanor was like that of Boy Scouts solicitous of an old codger. “Are you okay, sir?” Tourniquets and knives at the ready.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Day 101: Saratoga of the South

Briggs to Lampasas. 21.8 miles/1878.1 total

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Here I stand on a hilltop with an almost 360 degree vista, heading north on Highway 183 through Lampasas, and then a few miles past the city, to another deserted spot on Highway 183. There’s nothing to speak of between here and Lampasas, or thereafter, but the gray-green hills, covered with evergreen bushes and oaks. And the barbed wire, of course.

It’s another beautiful day, mostly cloudless, in the high 50s, heading for the low 80s. A gentle breeze is blowing.

Increasingly, the men I see in this part of Texas look like Randy Quaid with a big blondish-white handlebar moustache. And of course a cowboy hat. Randy Quaid is a Texan, and he looks more Texan than most Texans do. No mistaking him for a pointy-headed member of the eastern liberal establishment. Shit no.

The soil of the hill country is thin and rocky in many places, which makes it difficult to cultivate. With that in mind, I guess the best bet has always been to raise animals that can eat the grass and don’t mind stepping around a rock or two—cattle mostly, and goats and sheep to a smaller degree. The Europeans who came to New England found rocky soil, too, but were confined to their little area by their small numbers and fear of the unknown—Indians, forests, and so on. So they laboriously took the rocks out of the soil and built fences with them and did the best they could for a hundred years or more, until they knew it was more or less safe to go west. Back then the "west" was no further than what is now the western ends of Pennsylvania and New York, and maybe Ohio. But as soon as they could do it, they deserted their poor New England farms and left. The people who came out here, in the mid-1800s, must have been comparatively sophisticated about the conditions they were going to encounter, and must have had cattle in mind all along.

I come to Watson, which like Briggs is marked only by a small sign with its name on it. There’s the tiny Chapel Hill Methodist Church, which looks like it could hold no more than about 25 souls. Past that is the Watson Cemetery. I cross the road to take a look at the dead of Watson. I see Elliotts, Coxes, Jubys, Smiths, Morgans, and, not surprisingly, a number of Watsons, including J. Ed Watson, who lived from 1880 to 1980, and came to within less than a month of reaching the century mark. Next to him lies his wife Verlie. The name J. Ed Watson strikes me as quintessentially Texan.

Up at the northern end of Watson is the Kifaru Exotic Animal and Bird Auction. The next auction isn’t until May 1 and 2, and there appear to be no beasts in the pens in back. God only know what kinds of ridiculous out-of-place animals they deal in here. It’ll probably be because of a place like Kifaru that the Malthusian plague everybody fears will be loosed on the earth—monkey-borne Marburg virus, or something.

On the other hand, the history of the earth since mankind has inhabited it, and no doubt before that, has been characterized by the moving of species from one place to another—by birds, on the backs of mammals, in spores that blow for miles and miles—so what the hell. Europeans brought rats and horses and mosquito-borne malaria and syphilis and all kinds of plants to the New World—species we know and love today, like cotton and coffee. At one time camels roamed the southwestern desert in the U.S. And it went the other way, too. The rest of the world got tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, cacao, and any number of other wonderful plants from North and South America. Good thing no one got their shorts in a knot about the importation of alien species back then. Who knows what the Europeans would be doing now, with nothing to smoke, no chocolate, no sauce for their pasta, no spuds. With little else but booze and herring, the Dutch, I’m sure, would have lost the will to live long ago.

Sometimes I think humans have a pathological need to get worried and upset about things over which they have little or no control—species traveling from one part of the world to another, species going extinct, glaciers melting, cows farting methane into the air. Bill Bryson, in A Walk in the Woods, talks about the demise of the American chestnut tree, which was all but wiped out by a fungus during the first few decades of the twentieth century. He calls it a “tragedy.” When I heard it I thought, “No, that’s not a tragedy, Bill. A tragedy is a form of rhetorical drama, of Greek origin, in which the extreme actions of a usually noble human hero are juxtaposed with the actions of the gods or with forces of fate or nature, and where the hero’s ambition or flaw causes him and others to come to untimely ends. Oedipus Rex is a tragedy; Doctor Faustus is a tragedy; Hamlet is a tragedy. The demise of the American chestnut tree, on the other hand, is merely an example of one species of plant succumbing to another.” But that’s just me being a stickler for details.

Perhaps closer to a tragedy is our human insistence on imagining that we can keep things the way we think they were when we were kids, or when our parents were growing up, at the same time as our numbers and our appetites are increasing in such a way as to render even such an ambition, much less its dubious achievement, a ludicrous impossibility. Not only is it a waste of time, but it interferes with our enjoyment of what we’re in the middle of right now and makes us feel unnecessarily guilty about our future.

Well, I’ve had four ride offers so far today, and it’s only noon. The road is lightly traveled, and those who travel on it tend to go a long way, so they’ve probably seen my car parked off the road a few miles back and figure I’m going for gas, or something.

At a little over halfway I enter Lampasas County, and see a billboard for the first time today. This one says, “Experience Historic Downtown Lampasas.” And I did experience it, yesterday. First I visited the handsome 1883 Lampasas County Courthouse, built of limestone in the Italianate and Victorian styles, with three stories topped by a clock tower, and red mansard roofs. Inside, the courthouse is strictly functional, with courtrooms on the first and second floors and smaller rooms on the third, probably used sometimes as jury deliberation rooms. And on the walls of these rooms are photographs from Lampasas history—floods, building projects, judges, sheriffs.

Outside on the lawn of the courthouse several historical markers tell of interesting events. One was the so-called Horrell-Higgins feud. The Horrell brothers—Tom, Mart, Merritt, and Sam—were apparently your basic lowlifes, known throughout the region for criminal activities, including cattle rustling and murder. In 1876 a guy named Pink Higgins accused the Horrell brothers of stealing his cattle, and on January 22, 1877, Pink Higgins shot and killed Merritt Horrell in a saloon. This began a feud between the Horrell family and Higgins and a few friends of his. There was a shootout on the town square (probably on the spot where the marker now stands), in which one man on each side was killed. A couple of years later Tom and Mart Horrell were killed in their jail cell in the town of Meridian by a vigilante mob. This left only one Horrell brother, Sam, who took the hint and retired to Oregon and died of old age. This sounds less like a feud to me than the systematic extermination of a family of miscreants.

But the standout thing about Lampasas is that is was the site of several mineral springs, which became quite an attraction and turned Lampasas into a spa, which at one time had a 200-room hotel. I visited one of the old springs last evening. It’s just an old fashioned swimming pool, built of limestone in the 1870s or 80s. It smells vaguely of sulphur, and empties into Sulphur Creek. People came to take the waters, which were considered curative and very healthy. The spa flourished until the end of the century, and earned the town the sobriquet “Saratoga of the South.”

All of which makes me wonder why spas like that have pretty much ceased being meccas for people seeking good health from the waters. I guess it’s because, with the advent of indoor plumbing, people began to become cleaner in their own homes, and didn’t need to go to mineral springs. In other words, it wasn’t the minerals in the water that were curative, it was the fact that people were taking baths more often. Back in the middle of the 19th century it wasn’t common to bathe much at all. One imagines that well-to-do people who came to Lampasas and Saratoga and the great spas of Europe smelled a hell of a lot better when they left than when they arrived. And they must have been healthier, too, for having washed the funky grime off themselves—the parasites, the staph bacteria, the crud. No wonder it was curative! Not to mention the stimulating process of taking off all those clothes, getting naked (something people rarely did back then), putting on bathing suits, then afterwards dressing in clean clothes. Even though the men and women at spas bathed in separate facilities, when a couple got back together they must have found one another much more attractive. A salutary process indeed.

I enter the city limits of Lampasas, population 6,786. At the bottom of the hill, where U.S. 183 crosses U.S. 190 (with Ft. Hood military base 27 miles to the east), is the Saratoga Motel. From my vantage point up here at the top I can see pretty much the whole of Lampasas—McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Dairy Queen, the water tower, Hoffpauir Ford, the ridge of hills to the north beyond the city.

I’m about three or four blocks west of the historical downtown, but since I’ve seen what there is to see, I won’t walk though it today. Somewhere downtown is the office of Jimmie Don Aycock, the Texas state congressman from around here. "Howdy, Ah'm Jimmie Don Aycock, and ah wunna be yur ruprusunnative in Austin."

I do stop at Skinny’s Fina gas station store for some refreshment. I’ll give Skinny’s my business today because they were kind enough to let me fill the water tank of the motor home last evening, and (unbeknownst to them) to dump a large bag of trash in their dumpster. Thanks, Skinny.

After I get north of the city, Highway 183 heads off to the northwest again, this time going slightly more west than north. Up here it’s not a four-lane highway with no shoulder, like it was south of town, but a two- and three-lane highway with rather wide shoulders. Wide enough to drive on, as a matter of fact, which a number of drivers insist on doing, using it to pass on the right, notwithstanding the solid white line between the shoulder and the real lane. Interesting.

I’m getting more ride offers than at any other time in Texas so far—eight today, and only five before today. I appreciate the offers and have a hard time turning them down. Somehow, in the three seconds or so I have to talk to the people, I manage to make them understand that I want to walk, in response to which they invariably say, “Oh, you’re exercising!” Yes, I suppose I am.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Day 100: One Hundred Days of Solitude

Seward Junction to Briggs. 20.8 miles/1856.3 total

Sunday, March 28, 2010

From the roadside near Seward Junction I'm heading north by northwest on U.S. 183 toward a spot about four miles past Briggs, in the middle of nowhere.

Yet another cloudless day, but not as warm as yesterday, and very windy. I believe the official forecast is for the temperature to reach the high 60s, but with the wind it feels pretty cool.

I am now outside the urban ambit of Austin, beyond the northern suburbs, which I think semi-officially end at Leander, through which I walked yesterday. In fact, I saw on the news that just yesterday they opened a commuter train station in Leander, part of the Austin mass transit system, although the opening ceremony was long finished by the time I arrived there in the middle of the afternoon. And not a soul remained. Nor did I see a single train. But it was a nice-looking station.

Today is my 100th day of walking. One hundred days of solitude, as it were. To observe the day, some statistics about the walk so far are in order. The first one is easy—don’t even need a calculator. My average daily distance is 18.563 miles. Considering that I started out with wimpier distances and only had my first 20-mile walk on day 31, I guess that’s not bad. And the average is going up every day.

On the other hand, it has been 202 days since I started the project, on September 8, 2009, which means that I have not walked on 102 days, more than half the time. (That brings the real daily average down to 9.189 miles.) So what have I done with those 102 days of not walking? I went back and checked my records this morning. On 67 days I was either at home or en route to or from home. That leaves 35 days off on the road in the motor home or with friends. So my ratio of walking days to off days on the road is 2.85 to 1. That could stand some improvement, although some of those days off on the road have been for the purpose of visiting cities and friends. In general my habit has been to walk three days and rest one, a ratio of 3 to 1, not bad considering that before I started I figured I would walk five days and rest two, which would have been a ratio of only 2.5 to 1. Some might wonder why I don’t just walk every day I can and not take days off. It would be possible. But I find that I do better when I have a little time to do laundry, chores in connection with the motor home, and to relax. It may be the thing that has kept me going, since my walking days, from the time I get up to when I finish blogging, usually last at least 14 hours.

Well, there certainly are no rules here except the ones I have imposed on myself. I've enjoyed all my days off, both at home and in transit. But having said that, I will allow that I somehow feel compelled to increase the number of walking days and the length of the walks. I could be in California by now, or very nearly so, had I taken fewer breaks. After all, you’re not paying me to hang around the motor home and do nothing, are you? Come to think of it, you’re not paying me at all. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that . . . .

Still, I’ll be taking tomorrow off, because I’m out of clean underwear and I have a few other things to do.

I happen to be listening, on my iPod, to a book on CD by Bill Bryson, called A Walk in the Woods, about his hiking of the Appalachian Trail in 1996. That’s a humbling thing to contemplate, because that kind of hiking really is challenging in a way this is not. Carrying everything on one’s back and camping every night, walking up hill and down dale in all kinds of weather, and even then doing maybe 15 miles a day, now that’s serious hiking. I’ve walked small pieces of that trail in Vermont and New Hampshire, and it’s far more rigorous than this roadside walking ever gets. (Still, I just listened to a passage where he bitches and moans mightily about how treacherous it is to walk along six-lane pedestrian-unfriendly highways in urban areas and how intolerable it is that there are so few sidewalks in America, blah blah blah. I thought, a little smugly, “Welcome to my world, you big baby.”)

About two and a half miles into the walk I cross the North San Gabriel River, whose water is clear and whose river bed is emerald green.

A word about the weather here in Texas. Over the past several years the state has been undergoing a drought, but this year, thanks to an El Nino (don't ask me what that is), they’ve had a greater than normal amount of rainfall. The reservoirs and rivers are just about at normal levels now. Of course the very idea of “normal” in the context of weather is only based on statistical history. We make the mistake of assuming that because the weather has behaved a certain way in the past, say over the previous one hundred years, that it will or should behave in a certain way this year, which is not the case. In reality, each year, and indeed each day, the weather behaves exactly as it should—or rather, as it does—without regard to either the past or the future. The weather is not a school child or a trained animal. Indeed, there’s nothing to say that it should ever rain in central Texas again, until the end of time.

When things go “wrong” weatherwise (meaning when there is “too little” rainfall, or when there are “too many” hurricanes, for example), we’re quick to blame human activities for those changes, and we like to think that only selfish fools and greedy corporate villains are responsible. Rarely do we stop to consider that what we want from the weather is for it to do things that help us, pretty much without regard to anything else. Even our worries about the loss of other species ultimately centers on what those losses will do to us.

Meanwhile we rut and reproduce and continue to increase in numbers. And why not? That's what we do best. The biggest mistake in all this is the handwringing some people do about it, as if they actually had any power over any of it. Think Jethro Tull, Locomotive Breath:

In the shuffling madness
Of the locomotive breath,
Runs the all-time loser,
Headlong to his death.
He feels the piston scraping,
Steam breaking on his brow,
. . .
God stole the handle
And the train it won’t stop going—
No way to slow down.

Each time I reach the top of a long rolling rise I can see yet another gradual rise that looks just a little higher, a mile or so in the distance. The elevation of Austin is about 500 feet and that of Lampasas, the next city I’ll reach, is a bit over 1000 feet.

Let me try to describe the countryside up here. It’s gently rolling, with vast tracts of grassy pasture, dotted everywhere with small cedar or juniper trees, some no bigger than bushes, varying in height from about five to perhaps thirty feet. Cattle graze, spread out wide over the land, on ranches that appear several times larger than those in East Texas. And everywhere—I mean everywhere—there are barbed wire fences. Practically no land is unfenced. In the far distance, beyond the cattle and the bushes, are more ridges and the occasional knobby or flat hilltop, all covered with cedars and oaks. This is, in short, what most out-of-staters envision when they think of Texas.

And wildflowers, as always. Many species. Today I’m noticing some delicate white ones with pale purple streaks on the inner sides of the petals, making them look like fine china teacups. Evening primroses, I think they are.

At about 12.5 miles I leave Williamson County and enter Burnet County, named for David Gouverneur Burnet, first president, and also a vice president, of the Republic of Texas. He was a New Jersey boy, having been born in Newark. He once got into a shouting match with Sam Houston, his successor, and called him a “half Indian.” Houston responded by calling Burnet a “hog thief,” and Burnet challenged Houston to a duel, which the latter refused to fight.

I come to Prairie View Cemetery, dating to the early 1890s. In front are four huge stones of members of the Greene family, which stand like chunks of Stonehenge. The wind has been blowing steadily for several hours, and up here by the graveyard it comes into my face at about twenty miles per hour, as if trying to hold me back.

After the cemetery the land flattens out for several miles until Briggs, a tiny community located on a spur off of Highway 183. I opt to stay on 183, though, because there’s a store just past the fork in the road. Besides, I went through Briggs earlier today, and there isn’t much to see. It’s been a long time since the prospect of going through a tiny village has tempted me to take a detour, especially when on the main road there’s Jack’s General Store and gas station, where for the first time today I’ll be able to get some refreshment. By “refreshment” I don’t mean just comestibles, because I’m perfectly capable of packing enough food and drink for an entire day’s walking, and really don’t need these stops. No, the kind of refreshment I’m referring to is that of being in a store with other people. And who could resist a place that has the words “FOOD & FUN” written in six-foot black letters on its sheet metal roof?

Well, there’s food here, but I don’t know what the fun is supposed to be. Maybe the fun doesn’t start until after dark.

The road starts to go downhill after Briggs, evidently toward a river valley. The motor home comes into view, perched on the at a bit of an angle. I'm really closer to Watson than to Briggs now, but Watson will have to wait until next time.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Day 99: Cocktails for Two

Austin to Seward Junction. 21.6 miles/1835.5 total

Saturday, March 27, 2010

This morning I leave my car at the parking lot of Target near the intersection of 183 and 360, Capital of Texas Highway, on the north side of Austin. I'll be heading up 183 north by northwest to Seward Junction.

It’s another cloudless day, about 60 now, expected to get into the low 80s. For the first time in months I’m beginning the walk in a short-sleeved shirt.

The competition for the spare change of the people of greater Austin goes on unabated, here where suburban side streets meet the highway access road and people have to wait for lights. Hard luck stories are stationed at almost every intersection, with their cardboard signs and meager possessions. The competition seems to be not just for the money, but also to see who can come with the most interesting, original, or guilt-producing pitch to the motoring public. You already know my opinion about the pitch. I think the simplest of social contracts would be best—“Please give me some money. Thank you.” Or as they used to say in my business, “Thank you in advance for your cooperation.”

Nevertheless these mendicants insist on relating little stories. And who can blame them? They live in a society that seems to demand answers or explanations for everything. Mere begging, without more, reduces you to a peon of such low stature as to be hardly worth bothering with. Like a blind, legless waif in the streets of Mumbai. Look away. It's horrible. Whatever ills in American society have reduced these people to panhandling have also made them want to engage in it as a sort of commercial activity. They insist on trying to sell themselves to us, just like everyone else sells everything else.

I pass one guy with a sign that says, “Need Groceries for 2.” I suppose that’s designed to make him look like a person who wants more than money in his pocket, who has someone else to care for—maybe a child or a poor sick wife. I wonder if many people respond to that kind of thing? I know I don’t. Which isn’t to say that I don’t give money to beggars. I sometimes do, but as I’ve said I prefer the direct approach. Still, the guy might just be telling it like it is, and does need groceries for two. Or cocktails for two.

In some secluded rendezvous
That overlooks the avenue,
With someone sharing a delightful chat
Of this and that
With cocktails for two.

I can see them now, high up on the slope under the overpass, surrounded by plastic empties, gazing into one another's watery eyes. I think Spike Jones would approve of the image.

Another sign says (and here’s a man after my own heart), “Not Homeless, Houseless. Texas Is My Home.” That one uses the local pride factor to tug at the heartstrings. It says, Here’s a local guy who ran into some hard luck, but he’s one of us. And that’s not a bad approach, I’m thinking. Because one of the things people out here on the street corners have to do is to keep from being consigned to a category that makes them part of the Other. They’re trying to get folks to identify with their plight. It’s the old But for the Grace of God pitch. I complimented this guy on his sign, but he looked at me suspiciously, as if I were making fun of him. Here’s one somebody should try some time: a sign that says simply, “I Used To Be Just Like You.”

So I wonder how much these folks clear on a Saturday, after expenses? (Just kidding about the expenses.) I’m tempted to try it for a day, but I wouldn’t want to take away scarce resources from someone who needs them. Besides, there’s the chance I could end up encroaching on someone’s territory or be caught without a union card. Maybe I could find a spot and sit there with a sign that reads, “Hi. I Don’t Need Any Money, But I’d Still Like Some Of Yours.”

The access road up 183 provides a variety of sights—hospitals, drug stores, restaurants, car dealerships, restaurants (Joe's Crab Shack; Chuy's Texmex), and every manner of fast food place. Eat and Go. Grab and Eat. Stop and Stuff. Snatch and Gobble.

I received news this morning of the death of a high school classmate of mine (and of some readers as well)—Norman Sluiter, who died at the age of 64. Norman was what we used to call retarded. Today there are ways of saying that which involve many more syllables. He graduated in the Waterford Kettering High School class of ’67, which means he was about 21 years old at the time. I guess they figured it was time to let Norman go, before he got older than some of the teachers. Anyway, he attended our reunions (although I didn’t see him at the last one). I remember that at the 20th reunion he was voted the person who had changed least from high school. Indeed. The obituary said he was a self-employed maintenance man, though I was under the impression he had worked for some years in the exciting world of fast food. No matter. Norman is up there pushing a broom in the halls of Valhalla now. So I am dedicating today’s walk to Norman Sluiter. And, as they say out east, not for nothing am I doing so, because Norman probably did more walking, up and down the roads of Waterford, than most of us have done. Certainly more than me. As far as I know he never qualified for a driver’s license, so he had to walk all the time. I think he even walked to a few of the reunions.

I leave Austin and enter Cedar Park, a contiguous suburb whose population was estimated in 2009 at over 62,000. Here Highway 183 is just like 28th Street in Grand Rapids, or maybe Telegraph over in the Detroit area. Just a string of businesses and parking lots and tons of traffic.

I would have guessed that Cedar Park was a new town, but not so. It was begun in the mid-1800s, when it was known as Running Brushy. The Clucks, Harriet and George, sort of got it going when they settled here in 1873. Then the railroad came through and connected it with Austin to the south and Burnet and Lampasas to the north. At that time it was called Bruggerhoff, after a railroad guy, but people didn’t like that name. It was too hard to spell and pronounce (two reasons why no one will ever name a town after me, even if I do work for the railroad). So in 1887 Emmett Cluck, son of George and Harriet and the principal landowner in the town, changed its name again, to Cedar Park. People used to take the train up here from Austin a hundred years ago and stroll around.

Right next to the big snazzy “W” of the Whataburger is the smaller, more rounded “W” of a place called Wienerschnitzel, which purports to be the largest hot dog chain restaurant in the world. In der Welt, don’t you know. Evidently these people don’t know or care that Wiener schnitzel isn’t a hot dog, or any other kind of sausage, but a breaded veal cutlet. Nor did they know or care, when they started out calling themselves Der Wienerschnitzel, that the correct article isn’t der but das. Who knew that naming a restaurant could involve so much knowledge?

I see a young guy holding up a sign for some business at a street corner and I stop to ask him if he’d mind telling me how much he gets paid to stand there with the sign. We get to talking and it turns out he’s from Ypsilanti, Michigan, recently out of the army, settled in Austin. Small world. Oh, by the way, he gets fifteen dollars an hour, a bit more than I expected.

There’s an old cemetery in front of the New Hope First Baptist Church at the corner of New Hope and Highway 183. Right over the fence lie members of the Trammel family, and also some descendants of the founding family, the Clucks—Aaron and Frances. Actually, Frances isn’t in there yet, and she’s 100 years old as of last September. Hanging back.

The sign says I’m leaving Cedar Park, and immediately I enter Leander, population 22,379. Another railroad town, named for Leander “Catfish” Brown, a railroad official. And get this: they found a female human skeleton dating back 10,000 or more years here, and called it the Leanderthal Lady.

Two or three miles north of Leander I’m pretty much out in the country again. It’s not the absolute desolate country, punctuated as it is with water towers and power lines. But it’s hilly. They say this is the beginning of the Texas Hill Country, although I think I’ll be skirting it to the north. These hills are green and tree-covered, and limestone rock sticks up from the soil in outcroppings and loose stones everywhere. The trees are mostly cedar and oak, both somewhat scrubby, rarely seeming to reach much over thirty feet.

I cross the South San Gabriel River, and when I reach the entrance to a new housing development called Summerlyn I have about two and a half miles to go. Soon I see a sign for Seward Junction, but this is really not much more than the crossroads of Highway 183 and Texas Route 29. Seward Junction appears to be part of a community called Liberty Hill, centered a few miles to the west on 29. Liberty Hill is a city of a bit over 1,400, first settled in the 1850s by people from the Carolinas and Tennessee who came for the land that was offered.

With less than a mile to go, feeling the fatigue of the day, I stop to perch on a galvanized guard rail, my favorite place to sit. I sit on the rail and tuck my legs up and rest my heels on the lower lip of the rail. I look around me over the countryside at some of my favorite sights—a Valero station and a Shell station, each with its convenience store. I’m well-stocked at the moment, but it’s good to know that they’re there if I need them, with coffee, soft drinks, and those two-for-a-dollar peanuts. Or even a Blue Bell ice cream bar.

I get up and walk, and not far past Seward Junction I spy the big white rear end of the motor home, with its Continental kit over the bumper. When I registered the motor home back in the fall of 2008 the letters on the license plate they gave me were BWA, so I immediately thought of a mnemonic to make sure I remembered them, and it was Big White Ass, which seemed appropriate, since the back end of the vehicle is white and big. So there it sits.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Day 98: Colossal Jack

Austin. 20.8 miles/1813.9 total

Friday, March 26, 2010

I start in Del Valle, at the far southeastern edge of Austin, walking north through the city to the northwestern end.

It’s a cloudless day, about 50 degrees, climbing up into the low 70s. I have a feeling I’m going to be saying “it’s a cloudless day” more frequently as I head out toward west Texas.

Yesterday I visited the Blanton Museum of Art on the campus of UT. Nice looking building with an beautiful Moorish style atrium and staircase to the upper level. Quite a few Italian paintings from the renaissance and later, but also some American western stuff by Remington, Bierstadt, and others.

I spent last evening with friends Joy and Ron Felt, who took me out to dinner and to spend the night at their beautiful house over by Lake Travis, west of Austin. Thanks to them for their hospitality.

And now it’s back to the road. After I get past the airport and the morning haze burns off I begin to catch glimpses of the skyline. And a clean and modern one it is. I daresay that twenty years ago at least half the skyscrapers weren’t there, and a decade before that most of the rest weren’t either, and the state capitol and University of Texas tower dominated the view. But no more. And speaking of the university tower, that’s the one where a guy named Charles Whitman killed and wounded a bunch of people back in 1966, holed up for much of the time on the 29th floor observation deck, before being killed himself.

One of the avian phenomena I observe frequently around here is these black birds—grackles, I think, that have a bluish sheen in certain light. What makes them distinctive here in central Texas is their impressive tails, which are often as long as their bodies and stick up at a rakish angle. People evidently consider them to be nuisance birds, but I must say I find them quite beautiful. Perhaps the birds consider humans to be nuisance mammals, or maybe they're more charitable than that.

I turn right onto Riverside Drive, which will take me to Congress. Here it’s a six-lane boulevard. Gradually the skyline gets larger. If there’s a low-rent district in Austin, it’s probably Del Valle, where I started, given over to trailer parks, a prison, and the airport. But it’s not bad, and from what I can see Austin is a pretty clean city. Not that there aren’t cans and bottles here and there, but nothing like the uniform trashiness of whole sections of Memphis and New Orleans (there are some things you just can’t blame on Hurricane Katrina). Of course I’m merely making an observation. I don’t dislike garbage. I’ve said it before. Everything we humans build and stick into or on the ground is just trash. We create an artificial hierarchy, calling some of it “litter” and “debris” while terming other things “infrastructure” and “buildings,” but it’s all just matter we’ve ripped from Mother Earth and rearranged to suit our purposes. And when we’re done with it we have to put it somewhere. So relax and toss that coffee cup out the window. Hell, toss a piece of plutonium out while you’re at it.

I turn right and cross the Congress Street Bridge into downtown, toward the formidable gleaming business district and the capitol beyond. This is the bridge under which those millions of bats live, sleeping now in the early afternoon. At the north end of the bridge I come to a historical marker talking about what happened in Austin during the Civil War. Not much, really.

Across from the capitol grounds there’s a marker commemorating Andrew Jackson Hamilton, the first Republican governor of Texas. A. J. Hamilton came from Alabama in 1846. He was called Colossal Jack because of his big stature. He went to Congress from Texas in 1859, then came back to serve in the state senate. But when the Civil War broke out he took a Union stand, for which he was forced to flee to Mexico in 1862. He then made his way north, and Lincoln appointed him a brigadier general and military governor of Texas in 1862. However, he served in this position from outside the state, in New Orleans, because the Union didn’t yet control Texas. Small detail. During reconstruction he was appointed civilian governor of Texas and served from 1865-66. Later, when white southerners began to regain control of the south and reimpose strict racial apartheid, he tried to run for governor, but lost.

Texas is once again in the hands of the Republicans, but they are not the Republicans of yore. They are in fact the old racist southern Democrats with a new name, and minus any progressive elements the Republican Party may once have possessed. They are the official party of fear and loathing.

On up Congress I go, around the capitol on the west side, making my way to Guadeloupe Street, which goes north past the UT campus. There’s nothing more invigorating than being around thousands of young people. Not just because of their pulchritude and energy, which is certainly enjoyable, but also to see these kids in what is the prime of their lives. Although, as I have mentioned before, they’re often less insouciant than they should be--far too serious and driven and regimented and busy discovering grave truths about the world and themselves and each other, when they should be living it up. (On the other hand, if you hear shots, hide under something.)

On up Guadeloupe I pass the spacious grounds of the Austin State Hospital, whose main building is made of limestone and looks like it dates from the mid-1800s. A chain link fence surrounds the institution, with rose bushes planted every few yards inside the fence. Today the branches and flowers reach out to the sidewalk passerby as if they are trying to escape from the asylum.

At 45th Street I turn west and soon pass by the Texas School for the Blind, Visually Handicapped, and Able to Play Pinball by Sense of Smell. At Burnet Street I turn north again, continuing uphill and out of the center of the city.

I pass a succession of Walgreens, CVSs, H.E.B.s, then Tom’s Dive and Swim and the Capital Music Center, and the Dragon’s Lair, purveyors of comics and fantasy, where the geeks congregate.

Finally I climb no more, turning west onto Anderson Lane, where I begin to head downhill a bit. I’m in the wide-open suburbs now. Anderson turns into Spicewood Springs Road, and gets narrower and shadier. Apartments and tasteful office buildings perch atop the rocks, amid cedars and oaks.

Suddenly I can’t see the road in front of me any more as I reach the top of an amazingly steep hill. While from a purely aerobic standpoint walking down a steep hill is easy, it is relatively hard on the legs, which were designed to support the body when walking flat or uphill. Walking downhill therefore taxes the knees, which brace with each step, as toes jam themselves up into the front of shoes. And I really don’t want to contemplate the consequences of tumbling forward and down such a hill.

I reach the bottom and approach the Capital of Texas Highway, where I turn right, heading for U.S. 183. Off in the distance on the many hills expensive-looking houses interrupt the trees.

Slowly I walk by the nearly-gridlocked traffic moving in the other direction. I feel almost as if I’m reviewing a long parade of late-model vehicles. Like a politician at a rally, I'm tempted to point and wave. I can see the people clearly as they inch along, moving no faster than I am. It’s a great chance to admire them and check out their kids. Some talk to themselves, some are on the phone, some rock out to music. Many seem to be smiling at me, until I realize they’re facing the late afternoon sun and are probably just squinting and grimacing. But maybe they’re happy to be going home on a Friday to their villas in the hills of Lake Austin or Lake Travis.

After crossing 183 I turn left onto the access road for the last quarter of a mile to Target parking lot, where the motor home comes into view, shaded by some oak trees.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hey, Hey, LBJ

Austin, Texas

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Here's a progress map and some shots of Austin from my first day in the city.

After moving to a new Walmart on the far north end of Austin, I visited the LBJ Presidential Museum on the campus of the University of Texas. Lots of exhibits about the large amount of social legislation he pushed through. Nobody before or since did or has done as much good as he did in that area, without question. But if you didn't know better you'd come away from the museum thinking the Vietnam War was a sort of minor hiccup during the Johnson presidency. Of course when it comes to long drawn out pointless wars in remote places, LBJ gets a run for his money from Bush/Obama. I guess the lesson is that you can pretty much stay somewhere forever as long as you don't use the draft.

Then over to the Texas State Capitol, a really large building for a really large state. Very nicely appointed, too. Red granite outside, lots of nice woodwork inside. I took the guided tour, along with a collection of aliens and out-of-towners. The guy was showing us the state senate, and I noticed the floor sloped slightly toward the front of the chamber, away from the door. I asked him why and he said it had been an attempt at improving the accoustics. I said I thought it might have been to keep the bullshit from flowing out into the hallway. The Japanese didn't get it.

Down at the south end of the Congress Street Bridge there's a gigantic bat colony. At twilight, about 7:30, the bats started coming out for the evening, at first a few at a time, then gradually more, until they were flying out from under the bridge by the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. Little silent children of the night. Quite a sight.

After that I walked around on Sixth Street, the center of the music club scene. I got that feeling I get sometimes, like I'm doing what everybody says you should do when you're in a certain place. They tell you to go to Beale Street in Memphis or the French Quarter in New Orleans. Drink. Party. Buy a t-shirt that says "I Drank and Partied Here." I don't know.

Lots of houseless beggars hanging out around the clubs, looking for this and that--rummaging through dumpsters, eyeing everyone suspiciously. A skinny woman who looked about fifty but was younger asked me if I had any spare change. I didn't. As I continued to walk past, she got angry, and yelled, "Hey! I'm six months pregnant!" I thought, "Lord, Lord, what a country." Any way you look at it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Day 97: Toss Me a Quarter

Bastrop to Austin. 21 miles/1793.1 total

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

It is 9:40 a.m. and I am leaving from the parking lot at Walmart in Bastrop. It’s such a pleasant place, under some shade trees, with birds singing overhead morning and evening, that I think I’ll stay here another night. This morning as I was getting ready to go I looked out the front of the motor home and several chickens were pecking around the little bit of grass next to where I was parked. One was a rooster with beautiful long tail feathers. I think maybe after the encounter with the giant Gallo Rey the other day the rooster has become my spirit animal, replacing the raccoon.

Today I’ll walk west by northwest on Texas Route 71 to just inside the Austin city limits.

The sky is filled with high clouds and it's already in the high 50s, headed into the 70s again.

I’m on the access road alongside Route 21/Route 71, going past the heavy-duty commercial area of Bastrop, the chain motels and strip malls. After I leave Bastrop it’ll be another day in the country pretty much all the way to Austin. Bastrop, the city named for an impostor. Well, I’m sure there’ve been more than a few more those.

The carefully manicured front lawns of restaurants and coffee shops are being tended by men with weed whackers, and everywhere people are busy in trucks and on machinery and in the bays of oil change places. A man is on a Bobcat with a jackhammer attachment, breaking up a 25 foot square slab of concrete, probably to make way for some other building. “Break up that concrete so we can pour more concrete,” someone said somewhere. It’s a busy day, like in a Richard Scarry kids’ book where the little animal people are hard at work.

A couple of miles west of Bastrop, on a hill, I go by a large field of prickly pear cacti. Wildflowers are everywhere along the road—the bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes, but others, too, which I discover have interesting names, like false nightshade, pennyroyals, bull nettles.

Texas 21 splits off from 71, and I remain on 71. Just past the split, I pass through Wyldwood, a community of 2,310, consisting of a few dozen businesses lining the highway on both sides. One of them is called The Barbeque Bakery, and another, on my side of the road, is Clyde’s Wildwood Bar-B-Que Shop and Casino, in front of which sits a slightly dilapidated black convertible that purports to be the Batmobile. Actually it’s a 1959 Chrysler Imperial with enhanced fins, stripped of its chrome and painted black. I know this because right in front of the Batmobile is a regular stock ’59 Imperial. As many of you will remember, 1959 was the apotheosis of tailfins on cars, so it doesn’t take much to turn these fins into bat wings. And wouldn’t you know it, Clyde’s is open Wednesday through Sunday, and today is Tuesday.

For most of the walk today I’ve been able to stay on old side roads running parallel to the highway, although this one has an ample shoulder. At almost ten miles into the walk the old road narrows into a one-lane track in places, still walkable. It’s dirt now, but tiny bits of fifty-year-old asphalt show through the sand and gravel in places.

Here, on a rise, is the Williams Family Cemetery, an acre or so of old gravestones, heaved out of the ground and placed at haphazard angles to one another. The place is overrun with bushes and scrub trees. White irises are blooming and proliferating between the places where the members of the extended Williams family lie dead. A bouquet of artificial plastic lilies is on its side, looking ridiculous in the face of nature’s own, including wildflowers of a dozen varieties—reds, yellows, and a blue so pale that it’s almost invisible in the bright light of noon.

From this promontory I can look down the hilly road to the west and see a fifty-foot telescoping black pole, with a crow’s nest just underneath a huge rectangular sign like the top of a T, on which a series of red words pass in succession: … PECANS …. WHITE CHOCOLATE COVERED PECANS … CHOCOLATE COVERED CARAMEL CLUSTERS … CHOCOLATE COVERED STRAWBERRIES … PECAN HONEY BUTTER … JALAPENO JELLY. The sign is so tall that it dominates the area for miles around. I daresay Davy Crockett saw it from the Alamo down in San Antonio. It must have whetted his appetite for independence.

And speaking of the Alamo, at about thirteen miles I enter Travis County. Travis County was named for Lieutenant Colonel William Barret Travis, commander of the Texian Army, defenders of the Alamo in 1836. Of course, like the rest of the Alamo guys, he was killed at that battle. That gets you a county, at a minimum, just about anywhere. And this county has almost a million inhabitants today, something young Col. Travis could never have anticipated.

Next I pass the water tower of Garfield. Actually, there are two of them, and I pass them both. Not much happening here.

I have to say that I feel that my nearing this capital city is of some significance—perhaps more so than my arrival in other large cities on the walk, including New Orleans, Memphis, and Houston. Maybe that’s because I know it’s the last city of any real size for another thousand miles, until I get to Phoenix. Maybe it’s also the fact that it’s a capital city, and I like visiting state capitol buildings. Well, I’ll have to see. Right now I don’t know much about Austin.

I get to a high spot in the road and look down to see the skyline of the city. In the foreground there’s a new expressway, a toll road. It’s a pretty spiffy piece of infrastructure, snaking high above the ground on huge concrete “T” shaped pillars, with stars in relief on the ends of the beige and brown painted crosspieces. As my wife’s late Uncle John might have said, "this highway ain’t even got the new out of it. Sheeeit."

At 20.7 miles I pass the sign that welcomes me into the city limits of Austin, population 656,562. I will only get into the far southeastern edge of Austin today.

Indigent folks ply the street corners at rush hour, each with his or her sign, competing for originality, but looking for something very unoriginal--money. A woman has part or all of one foot missing, so that’s a plus for her. One guy’s sign says “Drive Carefully” on one side and on the other is his pitch, whatever it is. Veteran. Homeless. Hungry. Will work for food. I am blind and my dog is dead. I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be easier and more direct just to have a sign that said, “Toss me a quarter.” No promises, no conditions, no representations that you’re homeless, jobless, headless, whatever. You have the money. I need it. Give it up. Thanks.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Day 96: Refuseniks Revisited

Giddings to Bastrop. 21.6 miles/1772.1 total

Monday, March 22, 2010

I head out from the intersection of U.S. 290 and County Road 200 in Lee County, five miles or so west of Giddings, to Bastrop, a distance of 21.6 miles.

Just a few high clouds this morning, with the temperature in the high 40s, headed up into the low 70s.

For the first mile or two I go down C. R. 200, because it affords me a little break from the highway. All along this road, in the pastures and by the disused railroad tracks between here and 290, are clumps of prickly pear cactus, reminding me for the first time that I’m getting into the west. I’ve seen cacti in the south on peoples’ lawns as part of their landscaping, but I can’t remember seeing it growing wild before on the walk (except, curiously, in a ditch in Michigan once).

A couple of miles in I leave Lee County and enter Bastrop County, and the sign says I’m on the Henry G. “Bud” Lehman Highway. I wonder why people are so fond of inserting nicknames into otherwise official mentions of peoples’ names? It seems unnecessary to me. If everybody called the guy Bud, that’s fine, but that was his nickname, for Christ’s sake, not his real name. If you’re going to honor someone by naming a stretch of road after them, then just use their Sunday-go-to-meeting name, the one mom and dad gave them. Or use just the nickname. But don’t use both. That’s just ridiculous. It smacks of the way the media insists on referring to infamous personages by all their names together, including their nicknames: I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby; Alfonse “Scarface” Capone; Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo; Vincenzo “The Chin” Gigante. All I can say is that if they name a road after me, I don't want it to be the Peter A. "Pete" Teeuwissen Highway.

After 5 miles I enter Paige, which is a widening of the road and a blinking light, along with a Chevron station and The Old Frontier Bar and Grill, plus a few more shops. Paige was established as a railroad water stop in 1872 and named for Norman Paige, a railroad engineer (not the kind with the striped hat, but the kind who designs and builds roadways). A few years later Germans moved in and the population to this day is mostly of German ancestry. But it’s not much of a population. It reached a high of 500 in 1886, and today stands at about 275.

At one-third of the way through the walk, I leave U.S. 290 and head off west on Texas Route 21, toward Bastrop. The shortest way to Austin would be to stay on 290 and go through Elgin, but going through Bastrop puts an additional Walmart between me and Austin, and it’s not that much out of the way.

Several miles down on Texas 21, right before the two sides of the highway divide into a rolling parkway, I come to an old monument, whose letters I can barely read. I have to trace them with my fingers. It says, “King’s Highway. Camino Real. Old San Antonio Road. Marked by the Daughters of the American Revolution and the State of Texas. 1916.” And that's what most of Texas 21 is, from the Rio Grande to the Louisiana border.

This parkway is nice and shady, planted on both sides and in the median with loblolly pine trees. I don’t have my tree book with me today, but just down the road from the start of the parkway is a sign that says, “Loblolly Pines Village Motel and Resort.” So I’ll take that as circumstantial evidence.

Here the shoulder is just as nonexistent as it was earlier on today's walk, but in the tiny unpaved space just off the road the layers of pine needles and sand and gravel give the roadside a sponginess that’s pretty easy on the feet, except when it slopes down at a precipitous angle.

A freshly-killed vulture lies on the dotted line in the middle of the oncoming lanes. Every time a car whizzes past a small cloud of pinfeathers rises from the corpse and one of the wings waves like a beckoning hand. Join me, it says. Soon other vultures will dine with their old friend. Like when Claudius asks Hamlet where Polonius is, after Hamlet has killed him. Hamlet says, "At supper." Claudius says, "At supper? Where?" Hamlet says, "Not where he eats, but where he is eaten."

At 18.3 miles I enter the limits of Bastrop, a city of 5,340. Today for the first time since returning from hiatus, during which I wrote about the Refuseniks, I’ve spent all day walking without shoulders, close to the edge of the road, watching the responses of drivers to my presence. I’ve been kind of hoping that my observation that the great preponderance of the drivers who refuse to move over are female wouldn't hold up. But it has, of course.

I don’t like it, because I don’t like clichés or stereotypes. It makes me sad, really, because although I can think of several possible reasons for this behavior on the part of female drivers—feeling more inhibited behind the wheel, relatively poor spatial judgment, being less likely to pass or otherwise move around on the road—I can think of no good excuse for it. And as many reasons as there might be, there is ultimately no good reason why a person in a vehicle hurtling towards a pedestrian at a high rate of speed, who has two lanes at their disposal, should stay firmly ensconced in the lane closest to the pedestrian. There’s really only one correct response to such a situation, and that is to give the pedestrian a decently wide berth.

And there’s one more thing about the behavior of the female Refuseniks that comes through, one I see in maybe about half of them, during that last fraction of a second before they pass. It shows itself in the set of their mouths and in their eyes, which seem to say, “Why don’t you get out of my way and off the road? Can’t you see I’m driving in this lane?” Young, old. Black, white. It’s a look I don’t get from the men.

The deafening silence with which female readers have met my request for theories or ideas about the Refuseniks (with the notable exception of my cousin S., who is invariably helpful) suggests either indifference to the issue or that very few women read the blog.

Where Texas 21 joins 71 and takes a loop around Bastrop, I go straight through the center of Bastrop. How the city got its name is an interesting story. The place was originally set up in 1832 and named Mina, after Francisco Javier Mina, a hero and martyr in the cause of Mexican independence. Then in 1837 it was renamed for a flimflam artist who called himself Felipe Enrique Neri, Baron de Bastrop. But he was really a commoner, a Dutchman named Philip Hendrik Nering Bogel, who was wanted for embezzlement back in the Netherlands and escaped to the Spanish colonies to avoid arrest. He became Moses and Stephen Austin’s land commissioner. (He had earlier set up a town in Morehouse Parish in northern Louisiana, also named for him.) Old Baron de Bastrop puts me in mind of Colonel Tom Parker, another fast-talking Dutch imposter. Parker, who was born Andreas Van Kuijk in Breda, came over here and joined the U.S. Army. Afterwards he took the name of a captain under whom he served, and added the title “Colonel” to enhance his reputation. Before managing Elvis he worked in the circus, as a dogcatcher, and in a Florida pet cemetery.

The good stuff of Bastrop, commercially speaking, is out along the bypass. What’s left of downtown Bastrop is given over to some restaurants and a couple of cleverly-named beauty salons--the Hairport and the Best Lil’ Hair House in Texas. Also bail bondsmen and lawyer’s offices, the things that stay downtown because of the courthouse. Oh, and a tanning salon. Those white folks. They want to look brown, but they still want to be treated white.

Leaving downtown I cross the Colorado River and head over to Walmart. This isn’t the same Colorado River that runs through the Grand Canyon. The Texas Colorado empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Day 95: Where the Buffalo Roam

Carmine to Giddings. 21.4 miles/1750.5

Sunday, March 21, 2010

I leave from the center of Carmine, heading through the village of Ledbetter and the City of Giddings, to a point about 5 miles past Giddings, a distance of 21.4 miles.

It’s cold, with a strong wind, perhaps fifteen to twenty miles per hour, blowing straight at me from the west. The temperature is about 40, and is expected to get only into the low to mid 50s. On the bright side, there isn’t a cloud in the sky.

There’s not much happening on today’s walk. Nothing really between here and Giddings, which isn’t much either, but does have a Walmart, where I stayed the past two nights. Also, Giddings has a Wendish settlement.

One of my readers suggested that I might be near where the Wendish settled in Texas, and sure enough, when I looked them up on the internet this morning, I found that the Wendish museum and local society is located in Giddings. The Wendish are Slavic people who lived in an area of Germany called Lusatia, over on the east side near Poland. They avoided assimilation and kept their own tongue, which was a Slavic language. Like small indigenous ethnically distinct groups everywhere, they felt picked on by the dominant culture, in this case German, and indeed were picked on, being urged to abandon their language and Germanize their names. In the mid-1800s, when Germans and other central European people were coming to Texas, some Wendish people decided to come as well, in large part to preserve their religion, which they felt was being threatened by the Germans. What was their ancient indigenous little religion? Well, they were Lutherans, just like the Germans, but they didn’t want to be absorbed into the Evangelical Lutheran version that was becoming the state church of Germany. They wanted to be “old school” Wendish Lutherans, even though Lutheranism was only about three hundred years old at that point—far less ancient than either they or their language. But what the hell. So they came over to the New World, aboard a ship called the Ben Nevis out of Liverpool, their Mayflower, and after much trial and tribulation and disease, they made it to Galveston, then settled in Lee County, near Giddings.

Well, now their language has all but died out, and they themselves have succumbed to what they most feared, and happens in this country all the time, namely assimilation. How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, and all that. But it makes a good little footnote.

There are also plenty of regular Germans hereabouts, too, who you don't think of as the oppressors, necessarily, unless you listen to a Wendish person, I guess. The main street of Carmine, which I just left, is called Hauptstrasse.

Little orange-red wildflowers are busy growing on the roadside. The bluebonnets of a couple of days ago are gone, and these pale-poppy-colored blooms are everywhere. I don’t know their name, but I’ll put a photo on and maybe somebody can identify them.

Meanwhile the cattle are busy doing what they do, which to us perhaps appears easy, but you try turning grass into shit, milk, and beef sometime.

At about six miles I enter Ledbetter, just a spot on the highway with a little side road running past some old stores. They’re either closed, empty, for sale, or all three.

Well past Ledbetter now, in the distance I see the water tower of Giddings, looking like it’s only about two miles away. But I know better, and sure enough, after I get over the next rise, a couple of miles up, the tower still looks like it’s two miles ahead.

Off to the north of 290 the cows, some thirty or forty of them, are sitting down taking an afternoon rest under the pale blue unblemished sky.

Now the thin traffic of early Sunday has become heavy and incessant, like the wind. I reach the city limits of Giddings, population about 5,000. Although part of land granted to Stephen Austin in 1821, the place wasn’t founded as a city until 1871, when the Houston and Texas Central Railway came through. It was named after a dude named Jabez Deming Giddings, who was instrumental in getting the railroad through. The name Jabez Giddings, I must say, has eccentric old west money written all over it. Like a character in a Harper movie with Paul Newman.

Giddings is the only city of any size for about thirty miles in either direction along Highway 290 between Austin and Houston, and there’s no bypassing it. So cars have to stop, and they get bunched up. And now that people are done worshipping the God of their choice (which around here is the Vengeful Eagle-Eyed God of Republican Hatred), they are roaming the streets in search of things to do on a Sunday afternoon, and whizzing past me. And for some reason, the wide, accommodating shoulder has disappeared, and I have to choose between walking flat on the edge of paved death, Refuseniks taunting me with their mirrors, or hobbling along the steep grassy slope like a mountain goat.

Giddings, according to the water tower that I’m finally passing, is the home of the Buffaloes. I wonder if they have a live bison as their mascot. They could certainly obtain one. Trot out the flyblown, shaggy old ruminant before the game to take a dump on the sideline of the opposing team.

At the junction of 290 and U.S. 77, in the heart of Giddings, I take a two-block detour south to look at the Lee County Courthouse. And this, I must say, is an architectural gem, dating probably from the late 1800s. It sits up on the grass looking more like a college classroom building than a courthouse, if you ask me. It has a Victorian, but also a Romanesque, quality to it, with lots of rounded arches and squat marble columns, and those string courses I learned about in Brenham, both of brick and white stone. I approach. Sure enough, it was built in 1899. Over on the west side there’s a plaque. It says it was built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, similar to the New York State Capitol and several buildings at Harvard University.

On the northwest corner of the square is a marble monument honoring Robert E. Lee, after whom Lee County was named, but mostly going on and on about the valiant Texas regiments that fought under Lee. I take yet another opportunity to spit on the name Robert E. Lee, traitorous cur that he was.

At the outskirts of town I come to a cemetery. Let’s see what the ethnic breakdown is. We have Mutschink, Jenke, Hempel, Peschke, Jatzlau. And some Kellys and Bishops. Then Miertschin and Luecke. So some Germans for sure, and probably some of these others are Wendish names, perhaps Germanized a bit. I sit down to rest on the stone of Fritz and Eunice Heinemann.

No more shoulder. At over 19 miles into the walk I cut over to County Road 200, which runs parallel to 290 for a few miles. This is a relief, because there’s almost no traffic. I smell rotten meat, and then look down to see what I think at first is a deer hoof. But it’s covered with long black hair. A black deer? Then I look closer, and see that it’s a pig trotter. Over in the ditch, badly decayed, is the carcass and huge skull of a wild pig, its canines perhaps two or three inches long. I see all four legs, scattered by some pork-loving carrion-eater. I'll bet it takes no time at all for a pig to be devoured. They are, after all, magical animals.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Day 94: Is It Fair to All Concerned?

Brenham to Carmine. 20.3 miles/1729.1

Friday, March 19, 2010

Leaving from Penney’s empty parking lot on the east side of Brenham, heading through Brenham to the town of Carmine, a distance of 20.3 miles. I’ve already fallen short of my new benchmark of 21 miles, but when I got to Carmine earlier this morning I knew it was going to be the last place to park the motor home for quite a few miles.

It’s a pleasant morning, partly cloudy. Temperature’s about 60 now, and expected to get up into the 70s.

The Rotary Club welcomes me to Brenham with a stone marker. It says Brenham was established in 1844. And below that it says the Rotary Club challenges me to live by its four-way test. I’ve seen this before, here and there, although I’m not a Rotarian. The test goes like this: “1. Is it the truth? 2. Is it fair to all concerned? 3. Will it build good will and better friendships? 4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?” That’s a four-way test we should apply to decisions we make as a nation, I'm thinking. Things would be a hell of a lot different if we did. Evidently there are no active Rotarians in Washington. Or in Austin or Jackson or Lansing.

I’m feeling more than a little stiffness this morning, but nothing that some stretching and more walking won’t take care of. Slowly getting back into the groove.

In addition to the ubiquitous English-Irish and Spanish surnames in Texas, there is a pretty strong showing of German ones in this part of the state. The Germans started coming to Texas back in the 1830s and 40s, and then in greater numbers in the decades after the Civil War. Today persons of German ancestry are the third largest group in the state. In Brenham there’s an annual German festival each May, called Maifest. Oom-pah oom-pah.

Crossing over East Tom Green Street, there’s a vacant house on the corner whose front yard is given over to bluebonnets. Very nice. I pick one and put it in my vest as a boutonniere.

Up over the railroad tracks I take a look at the Southern Pacific depot, which was built in 1916. Reading the historical commission plaque, I learn a couple of new architectural terms. One is “string courses,” which are lines of ornamentation going horizontally across a building, sometimes in slight relief above the façade, and “corbelled pendants,” which are, in this case, progressively raised brick, stone, or concrete ornaments that appear to be hanging from the string courses. These, according to the plaque, were influenced by the Prairie School. To me the corbelled pendants evoke the cow skulls so emblematic of the west. I must say that’s the kind of detail I would have missed if it hadn’t been brought to my attention.

I am now approaching downtown Brenham, where the buildings are a mix of boarded up and restored wooden structures dating from a century ago. The area right around the courthouse square is filled with antique and curio shops, none of which seem to be open at the moment.

The Washington County Courthouse itself, built in 1939, has that between-the-wars federal look to it, much influenced by Art Deco, with stylized aluminum eagles perched above the doorways on the north and south sides. It’s a fairly small building, for a fairly small county (30,000 population). And, typical of the south, the violation of the First Amendment goes on quite blatantly outside, where a succession of three-foot-high wooden cut-out Easter eggs adorns the courthouse, elaborately decorated and painted, some fancifully and quite cleverly. I can hear some of you saying, “Jesus, Pete, what’s wrong with a few Easter eggs? That’s generic enough.” Well, no, but three eggs in particular, more than the ones with the bunnies on them, grab my attention--one with a cross, another with a sacred heart, and a third, also with a cross, bearing the words, “He is risen from the dead and he is LORD.” How’s that for innocuous? Unless they’re referring to Dracula, with that egg Washington County draws the line in the sand between Christians, on the one hand, and all other hell-bound heathens, on the other. As the Rotarians would say, "Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned?"

Now what bothers me more than the fact that such things are placed in front of government buildings all over this blessed land of ours is that there are young people who are growing up to believe that it’s perfectly okay. You can always chalk it up to local ignorance and blame the yahoos, but when our esteemed President (Democratic no less, and hence among those who should theoretically know better)turns his own inauguration into an unabashed prayerfest of historically unprecedented proportions, well, what’s a girl to think? Many people believe that because things like this happen and no one prevents them from happening, they must be legal. Hmmmmm. Think again. A good example of the difference between de facto and de jure.

Cancel my subscription to the resurrection.
--The Doors

On the way up and out of town, I pass a wonderful little place called Gerson’s Art Work and Tattooing, a multi-colored house with lots of fanciful cut-outs and sculptures standing on the lawn. It says “Open Every Day Except When Closed.”

I’m seeing lots of meat and sausage shops in this part of Texas. Most of the proprietors seem to have German or Polish names. You can’t beat the Poles and Germans when it comes to sausage.

Having crossed out of the Brenham city limits, I now have nothing but road in front of me for the long balance of the walk. Highway 290 is a very busy road with very little on it but cattle.

I get a ride offer from somebody, and when I go to my notebook I discover this is only the second offer I’ve had in Texas. But in defense of Texans, who I think are as nice as anyone else, I should note that I’ve been walking mostly on divided highways, where people are going the opposite way at high speeds. People who are going my way are clear across the highway and the median, and probably don’t even see me. This guy was wondering if I’d broken down somewhere, and was willing to go either way.

I pass by but don’t go through the town of Burton, population 359. I can see its water tower. I do stop at the Burton Sausage Store, though, for some refreshment. Not sausage, however. A Burton policeman, very friendly, stops to see if I’m okay. I decide not to complain to him about Washington County’s Easter egg display.

It’s a very long and achy two or three hours out of Burton, and at 19.6 miles I enter Fayette County, and almost immediately thereafter also enter the town of Carmine, my destination for the day. Carmine is a city of 228, laid out on both sides of Highway 290, which seems to have devoted itself almost entirely to the sale of antiques. Or junk. Or second hand stuff. And to reward Carmine for being the hostess, the alma mater, to my motor home throughout the day, it is my intention to visit several of these places.

There’s one intersection in Carmine, marked by the temporary lowering of the speed limit to 55 miles per hour. Approaching the center of the village I pass Martin Luther Lutheran Church. It occurs to me that I’ve never seen a Lutheran church named specifically for Martin Luther, beyond the denominational name itself. Luther Lutheran. I guess it’s a bit redundant. The presence of Lutherans, of course, means Germans.

They’re having a Cushman motor scooter convention of some kind here in Carmine, with a bunch of old farts scooting around on their fancy restored scooters. I limp past them to the vacant lot.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Day 93: The Rooster King

Hempstead to Brenham. 21 miles/1708.8 total

Thursday, March 18, 2010

At 9:21 a.m. I leave from in front of a veterinary clinic in Hempstead, heading to U.S. 290 and to the larger city of Brenham, a distance of 21 miles. I’m back after a little over three weeks of rest, idleness, indolence, and overeating.

First I go by the Waller County Courthouse, a not-bad-looking building from the 1950s or so. It’s undistinguished, built of red bricks with concrete trimmed windows in front, but at least it's not ugly.

This is a sunny morning with no clouds in the sky. At the moment it’s in the low 50s, expected to get into the high 60s. Very pleasant.

Some palpable changes have occurred here in Texas since I left. Spring has sprung. The ornamental trees are blooming and many of the others--sycamores, aspens--have begun to bud out. There are overtones of pale yellow and soft green everywhere. Spring in its anticipatory phase. All except for the oaks, which don’t get started this early, but by way of compensation stay around until fairly late in the game.

Up by the highway, a mile or so into the walk, I leave Hempstead, population 4,691, a town where I, or at least the motor home, have been residing for quite some time, perhaps longer than in any one place since I started the walk. February 22 was the day I rolled into Hempstead.

Up on Highway 290 I stop for my first shot of invigorating caffeine. One of the good things about being out of shape for walking is that there’s really not much to be done by way of getting back into shape other than to walk all day long for a few days. Of course there’s stretching, always a good idea, but no other training or preparation is really required. Just to put one foot in front of the other.

I’ve decided to make my daily benchmark 21 miles, rather than 20, just to kick it up a notch. It’s only another 20 minutes or so, and now there’s more than enough daylight available.

I come upon the entrance to a farm called Rancho Rey, in front of which is a ten-foot statue of a white rooster, with the inscription underneath El Gallo Rey, which means The Rooster King. I stop to take a photo of this royal chicken, and climb up on the pedestal. It’s hollow, apparently made of fiberglass or some similar material. It makes me think of Shelley's Ozymandias:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings.
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

I mentioned before that the countryside is becoming more hilly since I’ve left Houston. Not excessively so, just gently rolling, not unlike that of Michigan. In fact, if it weren’t for the absence of maples and birches and the preponderance here of beef cattle, what I’m looking at right now might be taken for Michigan in a couple of months, when spring really commences up there.

I pass another place selling concrete statuary, this one called Outdoor Heaven. A yard full of gargoyles, saints, birdbaths, and lions with their paws on orbs. But when you’ve been to Concrete Heaven over in Hempstead, other heavens just don’t quite match up. I suppose that’s heaven for you. Never quite as good in person as in the imagining. Even Milton saw it as a place where war could break out and all hell could break loose. Sure, God’s in charge, but don’t piss him off. God holds a grudge (which, silly me, I thought was just a human failing).

As I stop to photograph a concrete bison it suddenly occurs to me that I’ve been photographing places like this throughout the entire walk. I remember one of the first ones was up in Michigan, just north of the Indiana border. I took a few pics and the owner caught up to me in his pickup truck about twenty minutes later and asked me why I was photographing his place. He was afraid I was casing the joint so I could steal something later. When he said something like, "I know it's your right to take photographs," I cut him off there.

I leave Waller County and enter Washington County, crossing the Brazos River, a muddy thoroughfare about a quarter of mile wide. Just over the river and uphill a large stone sign built into a hill welcomes me again to Washington County, declaring that it’s "The Birthplace of Texas." So what’s that all about? Well, Washington County is the place where a convention was held in 1836 and the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed. You remember the Texas Declaration of Independence, right? Signed at the bottom by Johnny Lee Hancock, and also by Jim Bob, Bubba, and Bobby Ray.

Meanwhile it is 1:00 and my shadow is beside me on the right, foreshortened, walking in lockstep like a good soldier. The temperature has reached the mid 60s.

At 12.8 miles I come to the intersection of Texas Route 1155 and Highway 290, where it says, “Welcome to Historic Chappell Hill.” Many towns have made the claim of being historical. What of Chappell Hill? It has no population on its signs, and indeed no official signs that I can see. It was established, I have learned, in 1847 by a woman named Mary Hargrove Haller. That might be a historical thing in and of itself, a woman founding a town. She named it after a man, though, her grandfather Robert Wooding Chappell. Cotton farmers from the south moved in. Because this was about the halfway point between Houston and Austin, it became a stopping place, and Mary and her husband ran an inn. There were also a couple of institutions of higher learning hereabouts, Soule University and Chappell Hill Female College, both of which are defunct.

Although I’m just over halfway on the walk today, it is beginning to feel as if I should be just about finished. The time off is telling on my bones and muscles.

At some point as I seemed to have entered “Central Texas.” No more East Texas for me, although from a purely geographical standpoint I’m still pretty much in the eastern part of the state.

These huge cattle ranches that are everywhere make me think not of how many cattle there are, but of how few in relation to the amount of land. I rarely see more than forty or fifty cows at once. Perhaps it’s my ignorance, but it looks to me as if the land could sustain many more cattle than there are. But maybe that would bring the price of beef down or raise the price of feed, or cause some other kind of havoc. I’m sure there’s some economic alchemy at work here. All I know is there is a lot of empty grassland.

At a little past 19 miles I reach a billboard that welcomes me to Brenham, the “Ice Cream Capital of Texas.” Holy shit. It’s the home of Blue Bell Ice Cream, evidently, a brand I’m not familiar with. I guess I’ll have to have some Blue Bell while I’m here. I imagine they carry it in Walmart.

Brenham, population 14,237, is also the bluebonnet capital of Texas. Bluebonnets are these deep blue and white flowers I see growing wild alongside the road, and particularly in the grassy median between the two sides of Highway 290.

I crest the hill by the Highway 290 Church of Christ, a little sheetmetal-clad building, right next to the larger Cash Station Pawn Superstore, and head onto Business 290 toward the center of town. I won't get there today.

I’m dead tired, but somehow not in a bad way. Nothing that a pint or two of water and some time off my feet won’t make right as rain.

About a half mile down the road I come to a marble monument that says this was once Jefferson Davis Highway 20. The monument was erected by the Texas Daughters of the Confederacy. That evidently was the name of this road before it became Business Route 290. I applaud the name change.

At last I am reunited with the motor home in J.C. Penney’s empty parking lot, in front of the empty Penney store. I hobble to the door. Rest awaits.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Once More Unto the Breach

Brenham, Texas

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

At the end of two plus days of driving I'm back in familiar territory, in the motor home in Walmart parking lot, as the sun sinks over the trees here in the heart of Texas. I've hooked up the car and driven to near the end point of tomorrow's walk. The brakes work and the engine runs smoother than it has for two or three months. My amateur tune-up did some good after all, especially after Tommy put the wires in the right order on the distributor cap. (Live and learn; that was an eighty-five dollar mistake on my part). Inside the refrigerator is restocked and everything is put away. Slowly my small dwelling becomes my home again. It's like going back to a dorm room, or maybe a cell in a minimum security federal prison.

Comments appear again on the blog, a pleasant sight, even though I wouldn't have predicted the current topic. But I welcome them all.

Hope everyone is ready to do some walking tomorrow. I anticipate sore feet by the end of the day. It takes practically no time at all to get out of shape.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. . . .
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood. . . .
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot.

--Shakespeare, Henry V

Saturday, March 13, 2010

De Profundis

Cedar Springs, Michigan

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Inside the museums infinity goes up on trial.
Voices echo, "This is what salvation must be like after a while."

--Bob Dylan

The thing about eternity, of course, is that it's so damned long. Waking up for another day in the sweet sunshine of heaven, or the wretched darkness of hell. Either way, it's all about the waiting. Will tomorrow be different? How anyone could have devised eternity as a reward for good behavior is beyond me. Sure, being endlessly boiled in oil, eaten by teeth of flame, prodded by pitchforks, sliced and diced, those things do sound more than a bit painful and dreary. But who ever seriously considers the long-term effects of the flip side? Would the warmth of the presence of God be any less tedious after the first million years or so? How much unremitting bliss can anyone really stand? Lucifer got restless.

No, the punishment isn't the pain and torture so much as it is the endlessness of it all. Give us any kind of situation and we can adjust to it after awhile. We are adaptive animals. But tell us it's never going to change and that's downright depressing. In fact, I think a pretty good definition of depression, as it afflicts the human brain, is that it's the feeling that things aren't good, and that they won't get any better. It's Macbeth saying "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow." It's Sisyphus saying "Same boulder, different day." That, and the feeling that things could always get worse. Michael Corleone in his kitchen, pulling his clenched fists to himself with "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." Prometheus lying there thinking "Oh Christ, here comes that eagle again."

Notice that they don't really try to sell you heaven so much as to scare you with hell. Why? Because it's fascinating. The paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, the thundering sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Dante's Inferno is a lot more interesting and compelling than his heaven. Only scholars read the Paradiso. Most of us can't relate, but more importantly, to embrace it is to come face to face with its sheer cleanliness and tedium. They must really appreciate the occasional newcomer up there. Notice that all the jokes about heaven involve St. Peter and the entry process, your last chance to really be yourself before embarking on that endless acid trip and becoming one with the divine.

Where is all this coming from?

Readers don't generally want this aimless introspective shit. They follow the blog because I'm doing something they're not doing--walking through the country. I offer something a bit different in the midst of what they perceive as the comparative sameness of their lives. Maybe they've wondered what it would be like to do it themselves, in some form or other. For some it's like a slower version of reality television. Can he do it? Will something terrible happen? For others it may be a reflection of their fantasies. For still others an attenuated travelogue. But the important and universal thing is that they're not doing it--someone else is. This I understand perfectly. Who wants to read about his own life, after all, when he's living it in such excruciating detail?

It is understood that right now I am on hiatus, like a television program. People accept this, and turn to other channels. They just wait. It's all about the walk. I thought I might get some more responses to the riddle of the Refuseniks, which I regard as an interesting walk-related phenomenon. But so far the few women I've heard from simply aver that they don't do it. I wish to emphasize that I do not consider it a right versus wrong thing, just a difference I can't explain. It's not like men who don't put down the toilet seat. That's purely a matter of selfishness and/or bad breeding. This is something else.

I ask for nothing from readers, however. Our unwritten contract requires that I begin walking, which I expect to do next Wednesday or Thursday. Until then, enjoy the reruns.